“When Cindra first notified me last spring that I would be the recipient of this award, I was completely surprised,” said Sharon Coolidge ’72, recipient of the Distinguished Service to Alma Mater award. Coolidge, chair of the English department and professor of English, received the award during Homecoming Chapel for her 37 years of service and dedication to Wheaton, her alma mater.
“The Distinguished Service to Alma Mater award has been presented annually since the mid-1950’s to alumni who demonstrate excellence through service to campus life, to students, to the College as a whole; if faculty, also those who have achieved in their field of study,” Cindy Hoidas, senior office coordinator of Wheaton College Alumni Relations, said. “(The award) can be awarded to faculty, staff, trustees. Nominees must have served at least 15 years with the College, should stand out among their peers and contributions and service should not be limited to their particular field; there should be significant contribution to the total life of the College community.”
“This is an award from the Wheaton College Alumni Association,” Cindra Stackhouse Taetzsch ‘82, Director of Alumni and Parent Relations, said. “Recipients are decided by the volunteer Alumni Association Board of Directors, 18 alumni from all decades back through the ‘60s, who live in various parts of the United States and who represent alumni interests to the College.”
The award first originated in 1953 and has continued annually since then. Last years award was given to David Tenue ‘74, the director of Gift Planning Services.
The ceremony at homecoming was short and simple. After highlighting Dr. Coolidge’s accomplishments, President Ryken presented her with the award, and the announcement was followed by thunderous applause from both students and alumni.
“As we worked on the details for the program, I really appreciated the opportunity to think back over my 37 years at the College,” said Coolidge. “That process highlighted for me how God has led during my time here, opening some doors and closing others. In the way that Cindra and her staff shaped the program for homecoming weekend, I felt thoroughly and graciously honored, and I’m grateful for all of their work.”
Coolidge began her journey at Wheaton in 1969, where she majored in English and also served as teaching assistant to professor of English and chair of the English department Beatrice Batson M.A. ‘47. She went on to earn her masters and doctoral degrees from Duke University in 1974 and 1977. She then returned to Wheaton to teach medieval literature in the English department. In 1986, Coolidge was appointed director of Writing Across the Curriculum and started the Writing Center. The Wheaton Alumni web page notes, “In this role, Sharon enhanced professional development on campus by crafting workshops for faculty on how to best use writing in their teaching.”
Coolidge was appointed in 1993 as the director of Project Teacher, “an initiative started by the College to help faculty improve teaching,” said Coolidge. “It can involve grants for developing aspects of a course, younger faculty being mentored by more experienced faculty, or discussion groups on various aspects of teaching — leading discussion, grading, evaluating writing, etc.”
In 1996, Coolidge was selected as chair of the English Department, and she was elected to a two-year post as vice-chair of the faculty in 2005 and again in 2007. While vice-chair for a second term, Coolidge was appointed to the Presidential Selection Committee that chose President Philip Ryken ‘88 as Wheaton’s eighth president. “Serving on the Presidential Selection Committee as the faculty representative and serving as Vice-Chair of the Faculty for two terms provided an opportunity to see the College from an entirely different perspective,” Coolidge said.
Besides meeting her husband, professor of economics emeritus Norm Ewert, at Wheaton as faculty members, Coolidge has many other fond memories of her 37 years here. She has been to Wheaton in England 11 times and has enjoyed “experiencing the sense of community with faculty and students who were a part of the program.” She has also visited multiple international HNGR sites with her husband, and she notes, “These experiences have changed me in significant ways.” For over 35 years, Coolidge has continued to host Thursday night dinners at her house where she feeds over 30 to 50 students who gather to hear a guest speaker. She appreciates these dinners because they give her “the chance to get to know students well apart from the classroom and exploring issues related to living out our faith in a global world with students, faculty and other off-campus guests.”
Although Coolidge loves “sharing [her] passions in literature and writing with Wheaton students,” these 37 years have not been without their challenges. “I think the biggest challenge,” Coolidge said, “has been trying to balance all of the expectations of faculty and to balance that with life apart from the College. Over my time here, I’ve seen those expectations continue to rise — especially in my role as department chair.”
Besides running the English department at Wheaton and teaching several English courses, Dr. Coolidge is also a member of several professional societies, including the Medieval Society of America, the New Chaucer Society, the Arthurian Society, the Association of Departments of English, and the Conference on Christianity and Literature. Coolidge has been published several times, and her first book “The Grafted Tree: A Study in Symbolic Function,” has just been completed and sent out for review.
Coolidge’s intellectual interests lie primarily in medieval literature, medieval theology and medieval art, “particularly in medieval symbolism and its theological, philosophical and artistic roots. My interests include both the possible meanings of different symbols but also how symbols function within different genres and contexts in medieval literature and art,” she said. She is also interested in the teaching of writing, peace and justice issues especially as they relate to the third world, gardening, finishing wood and home remodeling.
Coolidge’s sons Chris ’05 and Andy ‘09 are also Wheaton grads, though they strayed from their mother’s English major and both graduated with degrees in computer science. Her daughter-in-law, Elise Ewert, who was a Wheaton grad, now works at the Ashkelon archeology dig.
Though her sons both have lives of their own now, Coolidge’s students continue to feel her mothering care in both her classes and her advisory. Students constantly visit her office to chat, sometimes about schoolwork, other times simply about their lives.
“She has a very welcoming presence and has been so helpful as my advisor,” said junior Felicity Stombaugh. “She’s so patient and supportive every step of the way.” Regarding advice for Wheaton students, Coolidge said, “Find a calling in life that allows you to use your God-given talents in ways that serve him first, but also bring joy and energy to you.”
When asked about her future plans, Coolidge said, “I want to continue to invest in my students and in my colleagues. I really love what I do and look forward each day to coming to campus.”